5.1.4 The Problem of Multiple Causation

Part: 
Two
Chapter: 
5

The world is complex, and most consequences are "caused" by numerous factors. Are highway deaths caused by failure to wear seat belts, failure of the automobile companies to install airbags, failure of the government to require automobile companies to install airbags, alcohol, judicial leniency towards drunk drivers, speeding, and so on and on? Is heart disease caused by cigarette smoking, obesity, stress, or excess animal fat in our diets? As with most other questions of this type, the answers can only be "all of the above," and so too with the problem of pornography. We have concluded, for example, that some forms of sexually explicit material bear a causal relationship both to sexual violence and to sex discrimination, but we are hardly so naive as to suppose that were these forms of pornography to disappear the problems of sex discrimination and sexual violence would come to an end.

If this is so, then what does it mean to identify a causal relationship? It means that the evidence supports the conclusion that if there were none of the material being tested, then the incidence of the consequences would be less. We live in a world of multiple causation, and to identify a factor as a cause in such a world means only that if this factor were eliminated while everything else stayed the same then the problem would at least be lessened. In most cases it is impossible to say any more than this, although to say this is to say quite a great deal. But when we identify something as a cause, we do not deny that there are other causes, and we do not deny that some of these other causes might bear an even greater causal connection than does some form of pornography. That is, it may be, for example, and there is some evidence that points in this direction, that certain magazines focusing on guns, martial arts, and related topics bear a closer causal relationship to sexual violence than do some magazines that are, in a term we will explain shortly, "degrading." If this is true, then the amount of sexual violence would be reduced more by eliminating the weaponry magazines and keeping the degrading magazines than it would be reduced by eliminating the degrading magazines and keeping the weaponry magazines.

Why, then, do we concentrate on pornography? For one thing, that is our mission, and we have been asked to look at this problem rather than every problem in the world. We do not think that there is something less important in what we do merely because some of the consequences that concern us here are caused as well, and perhaps to a greater extent, by other stimuli. If the stark implications of the problem of multiple causation were followed to the ultimate conclusion of casting doubt on efforts relating to anything other than the "largest" cause of the largest problem, few of us could justify doing anything in our lives that was not directly related to feeding the hungry. But the world does not operate this way, and we are comfortable with the fact that we have been asked to look at some problems while others look at other problems. And we are equally comfortable with the knowledge that to say that something is one of many causes is not to say that it is not a cause. Nor is it to say that the world would not be better off if even this one cause were eliminated.

When faced with the phenomenon of multiple causation, cause is likely to be attributed to those factors that are within our power to change. Often we ignore larger causes precisely because of their size. When a cause is pervasive and intractable, we look elsewhere for remedies, and this is quite often the rational course. A careful look at the available evidence can give us some idea of where the problems are, what different factors are causing them, which remedies directed at which causes are feasible, and which remedies directed at which causes are futile, unconstitutional, or beyond available means. We acknowledge that all of the harms we identified have causes in addition to the ones we identify. But if we are correct with respect to the causes we have identified, then we can take confidence in the fact that lessening those causes will help alleviate the problem, even if lessening other causes might very well alleviate the problem to a great extent.